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Can lessons from Iraq be applied to US-Iran tensions?

A declassified CIA report on Iraq says numerous intelligence lessons have been learned from the search for WMD. But the political dynamic around Iran's nuclear program is a different matter.

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That conclusion echoes the current situation with Iran. Vaez notes that "Cleansing activity in Parchin is interpreted by Western politicians as evidence of a present, not a previous, nuclear weapons program." The political hostility means few carrots are seen to be necessary, he says: "Just like Iraq, Iran's hostility is viewed as unalterable and thus there is no need for a light at the end of the sanctions tunnel.” 

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Still, despite the spreading prevalence of "biases and accusations," says Vaez, the intelligence community "has stood its ground on Iran. That is progress."

Ample room for error

Nevertheless, there appears to be plenty of room for miscalculation. The frequency of Iranian military exercises and claims of brisk progress, from an expanding missile force and cyber-war capabilities, to record-fast torpedoes and drone warfare, have opened the door to misinterpretation.

"The question is, 'Why do they do it?'" asks Alex Vatanka, an Iran specialist at the Middle East Institute in Washington, and the US Air Force Special Operations School.

"Clearly [the answer] is along the lines of Saddam Hussein and his people, which is to show strength, operate from a level of strength," says Mr. Vatanka. "Don't show up at the negotiating table weak – that has been valid for years. And importantly, don't lose face in Iran, in front of your own domestic audience."

Iran's history of the past two centuries includes many examples of weak Persian leaders losing territory and being humiliated in the face of unscrupulous colonial powers like Russia and Britain, and later the US. Iran's everyday vocabulary today includes negative associations about being weak that stem directly from those experiences, notes Vatanka.

"The idea that if you are weak and humiliated really does play a large role in the calculations of the regime, and has nothing to do with the theocracy," says Vatanka. "If the question is, 'Is there a lot of brinkmanship, or showmanship?' Yes, absolutely that is the case with Iran right now."

But he adds: "We've had 10 years of looking at this [nuclear program], and if it was so clear-cut black-and-white that Iran would have the bomb tomorrow, I think we would have had a different debate [in the intelligence community] today."

The US has a few veteran analysts who were on the Iran case decades ago, who can decode how formative events such as the Iran-Iraq War of the 1980s affect Iran's leadership decisions and worldview today. But a generation of US-Iran mutual hostility has added levels of blindness.

"Because we haven't had an embassy there for more than 30 years, because you can't travel there ... you have very, very few analysts or case officers working on Iran who have any practical experience with the reality of modern Iran," says Riedel of Brookings. 

"As a consequence, very few people have what you would call 'ground truth,' they've never been there so they don't know what the ground looks like," adds Riedel. "That's a problem that's insoluble, really."

Follow Scott Peterson on Twitter @peterson__scott 

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